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Madness and Capitalism

by William Bowles • Wednesday, 21 March, 2007

“The body had to die so that labor-power could live.” — Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, p. 141.

Anybody who has read Michel Foucault’s ‘Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason’, and who agrees with him, will probably have a very different take on the entire concept of madness. Indeed, the modern concept of madness is something that originated with the birth of capitalism in the 17th century, the ‘Age of Reason’ or as it was known at the time, ‘The Iron Century’, an apposite description, much more in tune with its time than the Age of Reason, but then it’s Reason that’s at stake, or rather the definition.

This was a period during which ‘reason’ took on an entirely new meaning in line with the prevailing Hobbesian view of people as nothing more than machines, or as it was known, Mechanical Philosophy.

“Life is but a motion of limbs… For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body.” — Hobbes, Leviathan, 1650)

It was Hobbes and Descartes—who created the philosophical framework for the entire basis of modern psychology (until Freud came along)—which is intimately connected to the conception of the discipline of work. The body is viewed as little more than a machine and one separated entirely from the mind.

“…we perceive a new bourgeois spirit that calculates, classifies, makes distinctions, and degrades the body only in order to rationalize its faculties, aiming not just at intensifying its subjection but at maximizing its social utility.” — Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch, p. 139.

Federici is describing a time four and a half centuries ago but could equally be describing our current situation, that’s how little things have actually changed under 450 years of capitalism. And it’s a view that can also be assigned to our attitude toward crime and sexuality, both of which were fundamentally reshaped during the same period.

At first sight, it may seem that there is little or no connection between insanity and the ‘work ethic’, the discipline of the factory and assembly line, but the rise of capitalism required a ‘disciplined’ work force, regular in its habits, the body being no more than a machine for production which had to be ‘regularised’.

Thus the ‘mind’ had to be separated from the body and where necessary, ‘normalised’ including our sexuality. There are incredible parallels between the ‘Century of Iron’ and the current Blairite assault on the individual, for it was during 16th and 17th centuries that we see a range of laws passed that reshaped relationships including marriage eg the abolition of the ‘common law’ marriage, the family, sexuality and of course ‘crime’ (we should remember that the 17th century was also the time of the Puritan Revolution and it here that we see the parallels with Blair’s Britain albeit a schizophrenic one). It was during this period that prostitution was made a crime as was adultery, ‘vagrancy’ and even unemployment or at least to be seen ‘hanging around the streets, doing nothing’.

‘What died was the concept of the body as a receptacle of magical powers that had prevailed in the medieval world. In reality, it was destroyed. For in the background of the new philosophy we find a vast initiative by the state, whereby what the philosophers classified as “irrational” was branded as crime.”Caliban and the Witch, p. 141

Here we see the invention of the madhouse and the foundations being built for the modern ‘criminal justice system’. At each stage we see the state taking ever greater control over the individual, for the body and hence the mind had to be controlled in order to prepare us for a life of labour and especially the need for discipline.

“Magic kills industry,” Francis Bacon

As Federici points out, prior to this period magic played a very real role in everyday life.

“Eradicating these practices was a necessary condition for the capitalist rationalization of work, since magic appeared as an ilicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is, a refusal of work in action.… Magic, moreover, rested upon a qualitative conception of space and time that precluded a regularization of the work process. How could the new entrepreneurs impose regular work patterns on a proletariat anchored in the belief that there are lucky and unlucky days, that is, days on which one could travel and others on which one should not move from home, days on which to marry and others on which every enterprise should be cautiously avoided?”Caliban, p. 142

Interestingly, prior to this period ‘earning a living’ as a wage labourer was if possible, to be avoided at all costs!

“Thus, working for a wage meant to fall to the bottom of the social ladder, and people struggled desperately to avoid this lot .… By the 17th century wage-labor was still considered a form of slavery, so much so that the Levellers excluded wage workers from the franchise, as they did not consider them independent enough to be able to freely choose their representatives. [my emph. WB]” — Caliban, p. 156

Is it any wonder therefore, why it is so difficult to break the ‘ties that bind’ for we are living in a society which has had five hundred years to instil and perfect the ‘work ethic’, a process that extends to every aspect of life, so much so that it has all the appearance of being part of the ‘natural order of things.’

Virtually every aspect of our society that we take for granted is in fact the result of a conscious act of will on the part of successive generations of rulers and owners of capital, refined and perfected. That it is now breaking down, is not because it is threatened by the Left but because the nature of production has undergone yet another revolution, one which threatens to unravel 500 years of social programming.

The carefully constructed infrastructure of social control which defined every aspect of life as if it were the natural order of things no longer functions, thus it is necessary to impose the rule of capital by force but not in the way traditional Fascism operated but through trying to reinforce traditional mechanisms of state control over such things as behaviour, thought and attitudes.

We see this manifested in the attack on the ‘rule of law’, on mental health, on the youth and the unemployed and poor via such laws as Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), the attempts to pre-emptively imprison the mentally ill on the grounds of what they might do. The introduction of ID cards, 24/7 video surveillance, the construction of a national database on citizens, each of these actions is designed to maintain a rigid status quo and to keep a close eye on the citizen’s behaviour, and if possible, to nip resistance in the bud, before it manifests itself in more concrete and really dangerous (to the state that is) forms.

The appeal for example, to adhere to ‘traditional British values’ falls under this heading, for it is nothing less than an attempt to restore the ‘traditional’ respect and subservience to the dominant ideology. The ludicrous nature of this attempt at restoring ‘traditional values’ in a country which is now so fractured along fault lines based on language, religion, ‘race’, age, even location, as well as increased inequalities between rich and poor, reveals a state that can no longer rely on obedience to ‘traditional values’ to maintain control.

Yet the reality is that it is the changing nature of capitalism that has brought about this crisis of the state’s legitimacy to rule. Changes to working patterns, collapse of the traditional manufacturing base, the disappearance of the ‘traditional family’ as the role of women (and men) has changed; the destruction of neighbourhoods and networks of relationships based upon work and membership to trade unions and political parties; all have contributed to the failure of the state to rely on the support of its subjects.

The carefully constructed infrastructure of social control, built over the centuries is finally and ironically unravelling under the impact of capitalism itself. But perhaps where this manifests the most is in our interior world, the mind, the place of last refuge for most of us given just how awful reality is and our inability to exert any kind of control over the actions of the state.

Thus we increasingly retreat into our private worlds, a move not unnoticed by the entertainment industry which capitalises on this retreat paradoxically through the creation of ‘reality’ shows, which are our innermost fantasies made concrete; you too, can be an ice dancer, rock singer, ‘celebrity’, castaway on a beautiful tropical island, meet the man/woman of your dreams, change your life, swap your life and be somebody else even if only for a day, even change your sex, age, nationality or ‘race’. The poor become rich, the rich poor, on and on it goes … but nothing fundamental changes, all is illusion.

Much has been made of late of our mental states under capitalism, although of course without the connection to capitalism itself. With rising levels of mental dis-orders, drug taking, ‘irrational’ violence, social breakdown and ‘unhappiness’, in short increasing alienation and dis-connection, the blame predictably has been heaped on the ‘family unit’, ‘lack of discipline’, ‘lack of role models’, ‘materialism’, the last being laughable really when you consider our entire ‘civilisation’ is based upon nothing else but materialism, the acquisition of material goods, the solution it is alleged, to all that ails us.

It can be argued therefore, that before embarking on the perilous journey of dismantling capitalism, it is first necessary for us to rid ourselves of the terrible weight which we carry around in our heads, itself an act requiring revolutionary courage.


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